Young children are rarely faced with dealing with the death of a sibling, parent, other family member or friend. When they are faced with dealing with such adult things it can be a very difficult time for them.
Explain the death as gently as you can. ” ‘Grandpa’ (or whomever) couldn’t stay with us any longer. His illness was too bad and the doctors tried to help him. We will really miss him on earth. He is in heaven now”. Or some other simple explanation.
Answer questions honestly. Children are famous for asking blunt questions especially during this difficult time for you.
“Did it hurt to die?” an innocent child will ask. The best reply is that we honestly don’t know but we certainly hope it didn’t.
“Was grandpa scared?” asks another child. I hope he wasn’t, you might reply. Grandma held his hand or some other close relative did.
“Could I die next?” inquires the child. Everyone does at some point but we expect you to be around for a very long long time is a good reply.
If the death is that of a sibling you have some extra tough circumstances to deal with. Often a sibling will get angry with another sibling and “wish them gone” and then when the sibling dies the child will blame him or herself.
Assure the child that no matter what the circumstances, it wasn’t their fault. If the sibling had a disease or injury, make sure to explain that to the child. Remind that child that not all injuries lead to death and not all diseases end in death.
This type of situation will play out longer than most other deaths with a child.
The child may appear to not be traumatized but in reality it may take years for the child to acknowledge and deal with a siblings death, especially if they were close.
Explain what a funeral and memorial service is and if at all possible, take the child to the funeral or memorial service. This seems cruel in some ways but I assure you, it will pay off in the long run. Never force the child to look at the deceased. Some will want to and that is fine while others will not want to at all.
Children need to be able to say goodbye and have closure on a death. A funeral or memorial service is a good way to do this.
Also, without a funeral or memorial service the child often believes he was lied to (though he or she may not admit it) and believes that the sibling is alive somewhere and will eventually come back or worse, that it may be him or her that is “gone” next.
Consider counseling for the child at least a few times. Even if the child seems to be dealing with things always take the child to a counselor at least 2 or 3 times to help them understand things better. Often a child will open up to a counselor and tell them how they are really feeling or share some profound insight that we miss as parents.
Allow the child to reminisce about their loved one often. Back in the early 1900’s when a child died they were often never mentioned again. The same went for a parent or other relative. This often led to a difficult time for children in dealing with death.
Later in the child’s life the child would often pass this along to their own children teaching them how to avoid dealing with death.
In my own family my uncle passed away at age 3 months. His name has been lost as his parents never ever mentioned him again. His siblings long to know his name and the circumstances of his death. All we know is he died at 3 months of age. This happened frequently in that era. A loved ones name will be forever lost along with the memory
In spite of helping children deal with a death, some children get into their teens and adulthood without having dealt with the death. For these teens and young adults the trauma is still very real and can cause addictions and other difficulties in life.
Counseling will still help these young people but it is going to be a long and rough road. If your child refuses counseling, don’t be afraid to insist upon it. I know from experience that itt will pay off in the long run.
If you tire of your childs questions, don’t be afraid to take a break. Tell the child that you will be available again at such and such time and keep to your word. Children need consistency during this time. If the child doesn’t want to talk about it at that time, that is okay too.
Patience and time will go far in helping a child deal with grief.